The ideal picnic wine must meet several criteria. Since a throbbing hangover can ruin an afternoon, the wine should be low in alcohol. On a warm day, it is best to avoid heavy red wines; harsh tannins can leave the mouth feeling parched. Finally, the wine should convey a sense of celebration. It is hard to resist a well-chilled wine that catches the sunlight in its bubbles.
Moscato d’Asti ranks high among our picnic favorites. On a recent trip to Italy, we arrived mid-afternoon at a small hotel on Lake Como. It was too late for lunch and too early for dinner. The innkeeper offered to make sandwiches. Crusty bread with ham and a plate of fruit were delivered with a bottle of cold Moscato d’Asti. We sat on the lawn overlooking the lake, and sipped the fragrant wine.
The simple meal was rendered festive by the wine. We decided then that Moscato d’Asti is the perfect sipper for spring picnics or brunch.
Many people confuse Moscato d’Asti with Asti Spumante. Both sparkle, hail from Piedmont in Italy’s northwest and are made from the white Moscato grape. Yet they are distinctly different wines.
Asti Spumante, sometimes called “poor man’s Champagne,” is produced in bulk. It typically bears no vintage date and is blended from multiple sources. It tends to undergo more filtration than Moscato d’Asti, resulting in less pronounced aromas and a simpler, sweeter flavor. It has a higher alcohol content and a vigorous froth.
Moscato d’Asti is crafted by small producers from the best grapes. Most remains in Italy. The wine has a gentle sparkle (with only a quarter of Spumante’s bottle pressure) and around 5 percent alcohol. Its light fizz and perfume are delicate, so it should be consumed fresh; look for the most recent vintage on labels. Always serve it well-chilled in an ice bucket; Moscato d’Asti’s delicacy is lost when the wine goes warm and flat.
We tasted two Moscato d’Asti from well-known producers. The 1999 Cascina Castlet has musky, savory scents, with flavors of honey, peaches, pineapple and lime (2,200 yen at Wine Market Party in Ebisu, tel:  5424-2580).
The aromas from the 2000 La Spinetta Vigneto Biancospino evoke sweet hay and lily of the valley. Its floral character mingles with bright papaya and melon flavors (2,500 yen from the same place). Moscato d’Asti is delicious with fresh fruit and salty foods such as prosciutto.
Wine Cellar & Restaurant Davis is situated on a backstreet in Takanawa, near the neighborhood public bath. On a warm evening, you may glimpse someone with damp hair and a towel around their neck sipping wine at a candle-lit, outdoor table. There’s almost no traffic on the street, save for an occasional stray cat.
The discrete, cozy spot is a favorite destination among wine lovers, including off-duty sommeliers. Owned by Shoko Davis, a sommelier who spent many years in Europe, this friendly wine bar is accessible to a range of budgets. But Davis does not skimp on quality. Wines are stored in a climate-controlled wine cellar and served in Riedel stemware.
One of the strong points at Wine Cellar Davis is its well-chosen “insider tips.” For example, Austria is best known for crisp white wines but at Davis, try a red: The 1995 Sonnhof Rotspon Barrique (6,500 yen/bottle) is a rich blend of Pinot Noir, Zweigelt and Merlot grapes from the Kamptal region. And if you have yet to be impressed by Japanese wines, ask about the selections from Yamagata and Katsunuma (our favorite is the 1999 Rubiyat Koshu Barrel Aged; 3,500 yen/bottle).
At Davis, a chalkboard menu of wines-by-the-glass changes weekly; distinctive choices start around 3,000 yen/bottle. On a recent visit, we sipped a spicy 1999 Antipodean (a Viognier, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc blend from Australia; 3,000 yen/ bottle or 700 yen/glass).
To go with the wines, the daily menu includes homemade pates, carpaccio, fresh seafood and whatever caught the chef’s eye at the market. For snacks, there are marinated olives and mushrooms, cheeses and other nibbles. An excellent set dinner is 3,800 yen. Upon advance request, Davis prepares party courses paired with wines.